Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science awarded to John Duncan

15 March 2012

The neurological basis of behaviour and intelligence

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded the 2012 Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science (USD 150,000) to John Duncan, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Assistant Director of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom). He is receiving the prize for his remarkable innovative, multidisciplinary research into the relationships between psychology, behaviour and intelligence on the one hand and neural processes on the other.


John Duncan is an all-round scientist whose work builds bridges between psychology and behavioural science on the one hand and neurobiology on the other.
Duncan’s multifaceted research encompasses everything from clinical observation to digital brain scans and electrophysiological measurements of individual nerve cells in animal brains. In essence, however, he concentrates on two crucial cognitive functions: our ability to focus our attention selectively on only the most important stimuli (selective attention), and our ability to adapt our thinking and actions to a changing environment (intelligence). At one time, only social scientists were interested in these phenomena. Thanks to multidisciplinary researchers like Duncan, however, they are now thriving areas of investigation in the neurosciences.
Duncan combines observations and theories drawn from a variety of different disciplines to produce innovative concepts that range from individual nerve cells to patterns of human behaviour, and that serve as a source of inspiration for many of his fellow scientists.
One such concept explains our ability to focus our attention selectively on specific visual stimuli and objects. In the 1980s, Duncan’s “biased competition” model united concepts taken from neurophysiology and psychology. In his view, stimuli compete for the brain’s attention, and those stimuli that best suit the task being carried out at that moment have an advantage over the rest. This concept is now regarded as one of the cornerstones of cognitive neuroscience and is used to study such phenomena as language, memory and emotion.
More recently, Duncan developed a new theory for how nerve cells in various multifunctional brain centres combine to produce intelligent behaviour. His theory is based in part on his observations of brain centres that are involved in a wide variety of different tasks. Together they form a “multiple-demand neural network” that gives one particular task precedence over another, depending on the situation. These networks may be capable of processing structured, abstract programs that lead to intelligent, goal-oriented behaviour.  
Duncan has also designed a series of neurological tests capable of predicting a subject’s IQ under experimental conditions. The suggestion is that such tests may constitute a useful addition to traditional psychological intelligence testing. The tests also offer fascinating glimpses of potential new relationships between biological and artificial forms of intelligence.


John Duncan studied psychology and physiology at Oxford University and obtained his D. Phil the same university in 1976. After a period as postdoc at the University of Oregon in Eugene (US), he returned to the UK in 1978 to become a researcher at the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Cambridge. His position was with the Applied Psychology Unit, an institute to which he has remained faithful ever since. He is now the Assistant Director of the unit, today known as the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
Duncan is a highly respected scientist, as evidenced by the many articles he has published in such leading journals as Science, Nature and Nature Neuroscience. He is also well known for his ability to communicate the complexities of science to a wider audience. In 2010, he published How Intelligence Happens, in which he explains the implications for cognitive science of recent research in psychology, artificial intelligence, brain scanning and neurophysiology.
Among his many honours, John Duncan has been made a Fellow of the British Royal Society and the British Academy.

Key Publications

  • Duncan, J. (1984). Selective attention and the organization of visual information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 113, 501-517. 936 ISI citations.
  • Duncan, J., & Humphreys, G.W. (1989). Visual search and stimulus similarity. Psychological Review, 96, 433-458. 1,560 ISI citations.
  • Desimone, R., & Duncan, J. (1995). Neural mechanisms of selective visual attention. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 18, 193-222. 2,238 ISI citations.
  • Duncan, J., Seitz, R. J., Kolodny, J., Bor, D., Herzog, H., Ahmed, A., Newell, F. N., & Emslie, H. (2000). A neural basis for general intelligence. Science, 289, 457-460. 379 ISI citations.
  • Duncan, J. (2010). How intelligence happens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science was established in 2006. It is the first major international prize in the relatively new, broad field of cognitive science, which explores how human beings and animals acquire knowledge. Ms Charlene L. de Carvalho-Heineken, who succeeded her father Alfred Heineken as the chairperson of the Alfred Heineken Fondsen Foundation after his death in 2002, agreed to establish this sixth Heineken Prize because of her father’s lifelong interest in the workings of the human brain. The prize is being awarded for the fourth time this year. Previous laureates were Michael Tomasello, Stanislas Dehaene and John Anderson. The jury was chaired by Pearl Dykstra.


The Heineken Prizes will be presented on Thursday 27 September 2012 during an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.